Kolkata: Ranita Bhadra, an undergraduate student of Sanskrit, is awaiting her final-year results. She has already decided what she wants to do next: pursue an MA in Sanskrit at Kolkata’s Sanskrit College—an almost 200-year-old institution, which only a month ago was turned into an autonomous university.
“I love Sanskrit,” she says, standing next to one of the towering Tuscon columns lining the façade of the Sanskrit College. She was introduced to Sanskrit in school when she read it as the so-called third language (after English and Bengali) for two years, and fell in love with it. She opted for Sanskrit in high school, and decided to study it further.
She says she will remain in academics, either as a research scholar or as a teacher of Sanskrit.
Even as the state government of West Bengal turned the Sanskrit College into an autonomous university—renaming it Paschim Banga Sanskrito Viswa Vidyalaya and committing more funds for its expansion—questions were raised about the demand for higher education in Sanskrit, a language spoken by only a few thousand people in India and Nepal.
The university currently has 60 seats for undergraduate studies in Sanskrit, says Upal Sen, the teacher-in-charge, adding that they always get filled up. Demand is picking up for courses in other ancient languages taught at the institute such as Pali and Prakrit, he claims. A lot of foreign students come from neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar for these courses, according to Sen.
The experience at Benaras Hindu University is pretty much the same, says Gopa Bandhu Mishra, professor and head of the Sanskrit department. The university has around 100 seats at the undergraduate level, and there is no dearth of takers. However, not everyone pursues a post-graduate programme, she says, adding that many start to work after graduation.
For students of Sanskrit, opportunities appear to be limited outside the government sector. Rituparna Chakroborty of Teamlease Services Ltd, a company that offers staffing solutions, says she has never seen the private sector hiring students of Sanskrit. “The only language that matters is English,” says Chakroborty, a co-founder of the company.
Still, the demand for quality courses in Sanskrit is increasing, even among the elderly. Kolkata’s Ramkrishna Mission Institute of Culture, a centre for cultural studies, gets a lot of retired people for its Sanskrit course, according to Chandana Guha Sircar, principal, school of languages at the institute, which takes in 50 students every year. The seats get filled up within hours of starting the admission process, she says. “This is what we have been seeing for the past four to five years.”
For those who have a “genuine interest” in ancient history and culture of India, there is no option but to read Sanskrit, says Bhadra, the undergraduate student. “And similarly, if you are interested in the history of Buddhism, you have to read Pali and Prakrit.”
Arkoprabha Chatterjee, a first-year undergraduate student of Pali at the Sanskrit College, says he started to take interest in the language when as a child he heard stories of the Jataka Tales from his grandmother. And now he is reading Pali with the expectation that it will help him gain more insights into Buddhism.
Indologist and author Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri is of the view that Sanskrit did not get its due respect from earlier governments, both at the centre and West Bengal. Not enough was done to preserve Sanskrit though the knowledge of the language is crucial to study ancient history and culture, he says. Sanskrit, he claims, is one of the easiest languages to learn because, unlike other languages, it is “very scientific in nature”.
The traction might be coming in late, but it holds out hope that Sanskrit won’t fade out with the thinning population who still speak the language.